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On the Bookshelf

Stories in Stone

David Schoonmaker

Am I Making Myself Clear?

Christopher Brodie

Never a Dull Number

Brian Hayes

A review of Those Fascinating Numbers, by Jean-Marie De Koninck. What makes a number interesting?

Physics and Pixie Dust

David Kaiser

A review of Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World, by Eugenie Samuel Reich. Reich's exploration of the scientific frauds perpetrated by Jan Hendrik Schön, a researcher at Bell Laboratories, is impressive and sobering, says Kaiser

Despicable, Yes, but Not Inexplicable

Craig Stanford

A review of Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans: An Evolutionary Perspective on Male Aggression Against Females, edited by Martin N. Muller and Richard W. Wrangham. “Sexually coercive males are not just attempting to have sex with particular females,” says Stanford; “they’re trying to control female sexuality in general”

Dr. Strange

Michael D. Gordin

A review of The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, by Graham Farmelo. In Farmelo’s hands, the story of Dirac’s contributions to modern theoretical physics is both gripping and illuminating, says Gordin; the author captures the beauty and ambition of Dirac’s view of physics and sorts through the mythology that has grown up around him as a result of the many anecdotes that circulate about his oddity

Twilight of the Efficient Markets

Cosma Shalizi

A review of The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street, by Justin Fox. The theory of efficient markets in finance should be relegated to the Museum of Nice Tries, says Shalizi; he praises Fox’s book recounting its history, calling it “a model of what the popularization of social science can be, but too rarely is”

Runaway Change

John R. McNeill

A review of Critical Transitions in Nature and Society, by Marten Scheffer. Like canoes, natural systems have tipping points, argues Scheffer; once a hard-to-recognize threshold is exceeded, runaway change can occur that is difficult to reverse—a relatively wet area can turn to desert, a heavily wooded area can become a savanna. Could the integrated study of complex systems give us the insight to predict and control such shifts?

A Thin Broth

Jon D. Miller

A review of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. Mooney and Kirshenbaum offer a media-centric diagnosis of the problem of scientific illiteracy, says Miller, and they see improvements to science journalism rather than improvements to the educational system as the solution

The Loitering Presence of the Rational ­Actor

Karl Sigmund

A review of The Bounds of Reason: Game Theory and the Unification of the Behavioral Sciences, by Herbert Gintis. Empirical findings have necessitated that game theorists modify their assumption that players are rational—that they can figure out the payoff of all possible moves and choose the most favorable one. Gintis wrestles with findings that contradict conventional rationality assumptions, but his attempts to explain those findings are not entirely satisfactory, according to Sigmund, who is disappointed that Gintis allows only a marginal role for evolutionary game theory

Viva Voce

Brian Hayes

A review of Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, by Greg Milner. Milner, who has considerable technical expertise, takes a dour view of the state of the recording industry, deploring in particular the pursuit of loudness at any cost that has led to a compression of dynamic range

Shorter takes on four books

Rosalind Reid, Anna Lena Phillips, Greg Ross, Christopher Brodie

Fresh PondNo Impact ManIn Search of Jefferson’s MooseThe Stuff of Life

Scientists' Nightstand: Clifford A. Pickover

Greg Ross

The prolific science writer reviews his recent reading and favorite authors

An Interview with Frans de Waal

Greg Ross

The Emory University primatologist on nature's models for a just society

Scientists' Nightstand: James Lovelock

Greg Ross

The author of the Gaia hypothesis reviews his recent reading and favorite authors

An Interview with W. Brian Arthur

Greg Ross

The former Stanford economist considers how technology evolves

The Weakest Link

Chris Beard

A review of The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor, by Colin Tudge, with Josh Young. According to Beard, the 47-million-year-old fossil Ida differs in minor details from other adapiform fossils, but not in ways that make it likely that she is an ancestor of living monkeys, apes and humans

Brainstorming Babies

Ethan Remmel

A review of The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life, by Alison Gopnik. Gopnik argues that studying the psychology of young children provides insight into issues of consciousness, identity and morality—and that philosophers have failed to appreciate that fact

The Descent of Man

Robert J. Richards

A review of Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. Did Darwin’s antislavery sentiments lead him to reject racial hierarchy, thereby opening the way for him to believe in the common descent of the human races and then in the common descent of all creatures?

Modernism in Mathematics

Solomon Feferman

A review of Plato's Ghost: The Modernist Transformation of Mathematics, by Jeremy Gray. Modern mathematics took shape between 1890 and 1930, during the same era that modernism became the dominant form in literature and the arts. Is it just a coincidence that the nature of mathematical truth was being put into question at the same time that radical societal, cultural and scientific changes were occurring?

Coming Soon to a Battlefield Near You

Hugh Gusterson

A review of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, by P. W. Singer. Singer first hypes new robotic technologies designed for the battlefield and then explores their ethical and political implications, asking farsighted questions

Agendas on Display

Michael Goodchild

A review of Picturing the Uncertain World: How to Understand, Communicate, and Control Uncertainty Through Graphical Display, by Howard Wainer. According to Goodchild, this is a book not so much about uncertainty as about the communication of facts and the interplay of information with interpretation, emotion and other subjective dimensions of the human experience

Unique. Sort of.

Melvin Konner

A review of Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique, by Michael S. Gazzaniga. If you want to learn what we know about how human brains and minds transcend those of other species, this is the book for you, says Konner

Missing, and Sorely Missed

Peter A. Bednekoff

A review of Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators, by William Stolzenburg. Stolzenburg documents that predators have important and often enriching effects on ecosystems. The science that he summarizes suggests that we cannot maintain ecological equilibrium without maintaining large predators

Family Album

Brian Hayes

A review of Mathematicians: An Outer View of the Inner World, a book of portraits by Mariana Cook

Overpopulated, but Still Untamed

Fenella Saunders

A review of Wild China: Natural Wonders of the World’s Most Enigmatic Land, by Phil Chapman and the BBC Wild China Team

For Every Bird a Nest

Anna Lena Phillips

A review of photographer Rosamund Purcell's Egg and Nest

An Interview with Eugenie Samuel Reich

Greg Ross

A science journalist investigates the frauds of physicist Jan Hendrik Schön

With a Little Help from My Friends

William McGrew

A review of Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. The emergence of the extended family was the key development in the transformation of apes into early hominins, Hrdy suggests


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